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Spice library

Learn about the heart of your curry

It hardly needs saying that spices are the essence of curries. Here I’ll take you through the main spices one by one.

Every recipe in has its own particular blend of spices, but each mixture is compiled from the spices described here.

green cardamom podsCardamom (elaichi)

The cardamom plant is a perennial of the ginger family and grows abundantly Southern India. The ripe cardamom seed pods are dried in the sun before being sold commercially.

There are two varieties of cardamom pods: large so-called black ones and the more commonly used, smaller green variety pictured here. When a recipe calls for the whole cardamom, the pods should always be opened up slightly to extract the full flavour of the cardamom, for it is the seeds that have the maximum flavour.

Cardamom is used in most curries, usually ground, although pilaus often utilise the whole spice. Always buy whole cardamom. Ready-ground cardamom is not only expensive, but because cardamom loses its natural oil quickly, it also loses it flavour.

cinnamon barkCinnamon (da uhini)

Cinnamon tends to come in two forms – as scroll-like sticks or as bark. These are actually two slightly different spices, as the bark (pictured here) is actually form the Cassia tree, native to Sri Lanka. Cassia bark has a stronger flavour than cinnamon sticks and tends to be used more in Indian cooking, although both forms are interchangeable.

Cinnamon is an essential ingredient in garam masala is is often used whole in pilaus and birianis.

whole clovesCloves (lavang)

Cloves have a strong and distinctive flavour and, when ground, are an essential ingredient in garam masala. Cloves are also used whole in curries such as birianis and pilau rice. Always buy your cloves whole and use sparingly as they can be quite overpowering.

In the past, cloves have been chewed to relieve toothache as they are highly antiseptic.

coriander seedsCoriander (cilantro) seed (nhania or kotmil)

Coriander is the single most important spice in Indian cooking. Its mild and slightly sweet flavour, said to be similar to that of roasted orange peel, blends well with most spices and controls the basic flavour of all curries.

Although coriander seed is more commonly found ready-ground, it is well worth buying the whole seed instead, as this well help keep the spice fresh. The seeds should be gently dry roasted before grinding as this brings out its full flavour as well as making it easier to grind finely. Failing that, you can rejuvenate your ground coriander buy gently roasting and cooling it before use.

cumin seedsCumin (jeera)

Cumin is probably the second most important spice after coriander. It is very pungent and aromatic, and is used whole and/or ground.

The seeds are often used whole to add a warm, earthy flavour to oil before cooking vegetables or meat in dishes such as jalfrezi. Ground cumin makes up many spices mixtures including curry powder and garam masala and, due to its pungency, should be used in significantly smaller proportions than coriander.

Note that there are two variations of cumin seed: black and the much more common (in the UK) white variety.

fennel seedsFennel seed

Fennel seeds are small, similar in size to cumin. They have a distinctive aniseed flavour and will add a lovely depth to more aromatic dishes.

Fennel is quite strong so be careful to use sparingly.

black mustard seedsBlack mustard seed (rai or sarson)

Black mustard seed is used whole or ground. It adds heat to garam masala and vindaloo dishes.

When fried in oil prior to adding vegetables in dishes such as sag aloo, whole mustard seed adds a deep nutty flavour. In powdered or crushed form it is often added to pickles.




Cook’s Notes

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